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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 19 New Delhi April 30, 2016

CPM in West Bengal: A Moment of Truth

Saturday 30 April 2016, by Nikhil Chakravartty


From N.C.’s Writings

Now that elections to the West Bengal State Assembly are in full swing, it is a ‘moment of truth’ for the present ruling party there, the Trinamul Congress, led by CM Mamata Banerji. It is thus instructive to ponder over what N.C. had written about the erstwhile ruling party in the State, the CPI-M, headed by the late CM, Jyoti Basu, and its functioning more those 25 years ago. Incidentally, the same CPI-M now has an electoral understanding with the Congress, reportedly forged under popular pressure, to oust the Trinamul Congress from power in West Bengal and prevent the BJP from exploiting the anti-incumbency factor to its benefit.

CPM in West Bengal: A Moment of Truth

It’s time to pause and ponder for the CPI-M in West Bengal. I would not use the hackneyed cliché of “self-criticism”—much abused in Communist circles. It has been shown up as a means to force a sort of confession in Catholic terms. What’s wanted is self-introspection. Let the leaders of the Left, particularly the wise and the perceptive, think over what’s happening and how to get back to the road to a purposeful future.

I happened to be in Calcutta on the day of the Congress-I called bandh on August 16, 1990. For quite sometime past, the Congress-I leaders in West Bengal, reduced to a state of ramshackle for various reasons, were striving hard to activate their ranks and thereby keep the party going. Their main fare has been the discontent and hardship of the people as a result of the rising prices. A natural occupation for a party in Opposition in search of an agenda. Inevitably, there was a touch of rowdyism, but that has been the tradition of West Bengal politics and the Left in its turn was not immune from it in the past. As a crescendo of that agitation came the Congress-I call for the bandh on August 16. It was concentrated in Calcutta though the call extended to the districts of West Bengal as well.

What brought into the limelight was the CPI-M’s decision to pick up the gauntlet. So long it was just an Opposition agitation against the government, but once the CPI-M challenge came it was made into a trial of strength, a prestige issue. Some of the more aggressive CPI-M leaders threatened to bring their cadres out on the street to confront the Congress-I and to see that the bandh failed, that the Congress-I failed to bring about a standstill to normal life. Some of the Left allies of the CPI-M objected to such a move as they feared this would lead to clashes which would not help the mass movement at all. But the CPI-M leaders persisted.

What surprised everybody was the stand of Chief Minister Jyoti Basu. At first he was understood to be in favour of tackling the Congress bandh by administrative measures, what’s called the law-and-order machinery. But to the surprise of all, Jyoti Basu changed his position and came out with the statement that “our boys” would come out and deal with the Congress bandh. From that point, it became a case of angry confrontation.

Many theories are current in Calcutta about this angry stance of the Chief Minister, and most of the speculations I picked up was from circles close to the CPI-M, from the party’s fellow-travellers and those who naturally vote for it. There was one theory that Basu was fed up with the Congress-I rowdyism and felt that enough was enough and the Congress-I agitators must be put on their place—rather unlikely for a Chief Minister known to be unruffled, a sort of an elder figure in West Bengal politics. The other theory is that he found some of his party colleagues—those holding the apparatus—itching for a showdown and Basu conceded to their clamour.

And so the CPI-M cadres were ordered to come out on the street and foil the Congress-I call for the bandh. What was the upshot? The trams and buses were ordered to run. Government offices were kept open, the CPI-M cadres, with Red Flag in hand at street corners, standing alongwith police pickets. But the streets were deserted, the buses and trams were empty and even the Government Secretariat could hardly function. From the point of view of rallying the public to defeat the bandh, it did not succeed at all. Even the Police Commissioner of Calcutta—no friend of the Congress-I, rather conscious of the need not rub the ruling party up the wrong way—stated that the bandh was complete. Whatever little I could see, I was convinced that in terms of cessation of public activity (which is what a bandh is all about), it was a complete success, and one has to acknowledge that in my 47 years as a reporter, I have seen not a few hartals, strikes and bandhs. It is to be noted that some of the Left parties, the CPI and the RSP in particular, as also individual Left leaders, frankly acknow-ledged that the bandh was complete.

How does one account for this bandh which was a demonstration against a government which has an overwhelming majority in the legislature ruling the State for 12 long years and has at its back a well-knit ruling party? Jyoti Basu has observed that the poor turnout at places of work has been due to “the fear psychosis” created by the Congress-I agitation. No doubt a good number of people did not come out because of the fear of violent clashes. It would, however, be a half-truth to say that this fear of large-scale violence became widespread when it was known that the CPI-M cadres would be out on the streets to settle scores. Let us be frank about it, the CPI-M boys are not known as docile Gandhian satyagrahis and so the fear of violent clashes was not surprising. This was borne out by what actually happened on the bandh day. Particularly the incident in which the Congress-I leader, Mamata Banerjee, was the target of the murderous assault by the CPI-M boys. The press photographers bear out the identity of these boys, and one of them found to be rushing to attack her with a rod happened to be a Calcutta party activist’s brother, notorious for his strong-arm methods in his locality, particularly during election seasons. So, the Chief Minister’s diagnosis of a “fear psychosis” has to be taken in its totality, embracing the record of the two sides in confrontation, and not of one side alone.

More importantly, the poor turn-out on the bandh day has brought into sharp relief the fact that the CPI-M, despite its challenge, could not mobilise the public to come out in the street and chase away the Congress-I agitators. If the CPI-M leaders’ constant claim that the people were on their side were true, then there was no reason why the CPI-M could not mobilise against the Congress-I agitation a large section of the public—the huge numbers who generally come to their meetings to hear Jyoti Basu. It needs to be noted that despite a very powerful employees’ union movement under the CPI-M’s control, the office staff, both government and non-govern-ment, hardly came.

It is this conspicuous public apathy, bordering on sulkiness, about the CPI-M-led government’s challenge that is the most significant factor in the entire episode. It was not just a case of rising prices that has created annoyance, because the State Government on its own is not responsible for the rising prices, and the CPI-M leaders could have been spared any blame for it. What has been annoying to the public is that in the matter of the public distribution system, whether it was kerosene or edible oil or rice, there has grown an entire network of party favourites, and everything is sought to be managed through the party channels. Apart from the narrow sectarian approach involved in such functioning, there is no gainsaying that corruption has entered into it which can hardly be overlooked.

There is resentment at the steep rise in bus and tram fares. Apart from the fact that it was the CPI-M which in the past had campaigned against such a fare-hike when it was in the Opposition, the public is also resentful of the fact very widely known that the transport sector of the State Government is riddled with mismanagement and it was but natural that corruption should enter it. Far from coming anywhere near Bombay’s BEST in efficiency and service, the West Bengal transport system comes out way down in the list when compared to counterpart bodies in other States. The excess of manpower and enormity of idle capacity is just appalling in West Bengal.

The biggest public resentment is over the chronic power shortage in West Bengal. When the Left from came to power in 1977, it ascribed all the ills of the power sector to what it had inherited from the Congress Government: it was given out that because the power plants had been recklessly used during the Emergency, there was dislocation in the plants and it would take a little time to sort them out. Next came the Chief Minister’s much publicised visit to the UK in search of gas turbine to augment power supply. But little was heard later about that adventure. After 12 years, what is the West Bengal Government’s record on this score? Not only has the power shortage continued but it is becoming worse and worse and today the government has cast away any pretence of holding out any hopes of improvement. Rather the State Power Minister has recently said that this year the loadshedding would be heavier during the Puja festival days than last year—and he said this without any sign of worry. Not even a serious diagnosis is made of what has gone wrong, why less than 40 per cent of the installed capacity is utilised. Even the bluff that the city consumer is denied power because of industrial growth no longer works. It is a scandalous situation—perhaps the biggest blot for any State Government since independence that it has not been able to meet the power demands of the State even after having been in office for 12 long years.

All these have their cumulative effect on the public mind. Nobody denies that the Congress-I is a discredited outfit in West Bengal. But this by no means indicates a growing swing to the Left. Rather there is not only disenchantment but rumblings of discontent at the ground level. In this context, a ruling party can gain if is displays humility and an eagerness to interact with all, to listen to criticisms and patiently respond to even its adversaries. But the CPI-M leaders seem to take the position that if one is not with them, then he or she must be regarded as being against them. There is no spirit of give-and-take. The public in West Bengal still took upto Jyoti Basu, and it is for him to see that his party pulls itself out of the morass of intolerance in which it is fast getting bogged. A moment of truth.

(Mainstream, August 25, 1990)

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